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Expectations high for Bears' season

Central High's girls basketball team already was gearing up for what was expected to be a much-improved season when one of the school's top athletes joined up out of the blue.

Okay, so Trecia Swanston has never played organized basketball before. Her senior leadership should help a team deep with young talent.

The decision makes sense for Swanston, whose primary sport is volleyball and who was looking for a less-injurious secondary sport than soccer, where she has excelled for years. But her absence is a big loss to the soccer team, where she played center midfield and produced numerous goals and assists.

Though Swanston's game has a long way to go _ she just finished with volleyball _ Lori Lessley has a talented group in her first year as coach. Lessley was an assistant the past two years (under two different head coaches) and led the junior varsity for one.

Central, which opened its season Tuesday night against Land O'Lakes, has decent height overall and three starters returning: juniors Quinn Schuster and Tayana Vieira, and senior Carey Hooper (also newly back from volleyball).

Sarah Belote, a junior who saw some time last year, and sophomore Michelle Fisher, up from the junior varsity, add to Central's size.

Lessley also expects good returns from junior Nicole Bastien, currently splitting her time with cross country, and a pair of freshmen: Jennifer Waddy and Stephanie Freeman.

Though the team won only four games last year, one of them on a forfeit, Lessley is confident her team is getting on track.

"(Last year's coach) Joy Greene laid the foundation for the beginning of a good program," Lessley said. "I have expectations, and they're high. It's tough to predict what's going to happen this early, but we started something last year and I want to build on it."

However, Central's district opposition is tough. This year it includes Hernando and Zephyrhills, perennially dominant squads on the North Suncoast, though neither looks probable to be a big-time contender this year for different reasons: Hernando lost several starters from its 27-4 region semifinalist squad, while Zephyrhills has everyone back but went 8-20 last time out.

Hudson was looking to improve substantially on last year's .500 campaign, but losing top player Kerri Rulison for good to a knee injury (the senior tore an ACL at basketball camp during volleyball season) places that in jeopardy. That leaves Pasco, which features one of the top players in the state (Jackie Pugh) and will be hard to beat.

Hernando will be hard-pressed to defend its district title, as it has been hurt by the graduation of two top players, Brittany Bell and Tinsley Gordon, and the absence of Mable Brown, one of the Leopards' top producers as a sophomore who left school for personal reasons.

That leaves two starters and three others who saw quite a bit of action. Senior forward Jennifer Jones and junior point guard Ana Mena return to the top five, and are joined by junior Nitra Williams, sophomore Katye Altieri ng senior Tracy Langley (6-foot-5), who steps into Brown's shoes. Kinsey Corn also should contribute.

"(Having Brown) would have given us a third starter and a little more depth, but this is a good opportunity for Tracy to play now," said Hernando coach Walt Cermak, who has led the Leopards to seven district championships over 15 years. "So far, practice has been upbeat and competitive, and that makes you feel good. I think we have the potential to have a good season."

Hernando opens its season Thursday at home against River Ridge.

Springstead will be waiting longer to open its season, starting out at Central next Tuesday. But second-year coach Lionel Thornton said his team needs the practice time.

"It's too soon," Thornton said, only half-joking about the girls basketball season being moved forward by two weeks this year. "We have a lot of young kids, we'll have to see what happens."

Springstead graduated its two top scorers, Danielle Thornton and Jasmine Graham, but has some experience coming back. Kristin Pedersen, a junior, senior Yelitza Nieves and senior Christina Richard anchor the group. Thornton also expects sophomore Eve Swanson to play a role.